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by Carrie Bearden, Ph.D.,
who recently spoke at “THE TEENAGE MIND: WHAT EVERY PARENT NEEDS TO KNOW”,
Presented by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in partnership with Sage Hill School
2003/2005 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee
Associate Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Psychology,
Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior,
University of Califonia, Los Angeles
I was very pleased to read Dr. Adrian Preda’s recent blog posting focused on ‘exercising the brain’. I have become increasingly excited about the potential for aerobic exercise to boost neuroplasticity (i.e., the ability of the nervous system to respond to stimuli by reorganizing its structure, function and connections), and thus improve our capacity to learn. One study that I find particularly exciting is this one by Aberg and colleagues: a Swedish population cohort study of over 1 million men, in which not only was cardiovascular fitness positively associated with intelligence at age 18, but cardiovascular fitness changes between age 15 and 18 years predicted cognitive performance at age 18. This suggests that making these lifestyle changes can have positive and beneficial lasting effects for cognitive functioning. I have been diving into this literature full-force as I am preparing a new intervention grant for our clinical research program for adolescents suffering from schizophrenia. I am hopeful this intervention may have the potential to really improve the lives of these teens.
The more we study it, the more it becomes clear that the adult brain is incredibly plastic. While neurogenesis is a special form of neuroplasticity, there are other mechanisms of synaptic plasticity that are less well studied, In particular, I am interested in myelination – the white matter fiber tracts in the brain – as a mechanism for synaptic plasticity (this is a great review by Fields, if you are interested!). Recently, several studies have shown large-scale changes in structural and functional connectivity in the brain in a period of just a few weeks as a function of learning a new skill, like juggling or learning to play golf. These findings of learning-related functional brain plasticity, occurring throughout the lifespan, are incredibly exciting.
There are also periods of development- sensitive periods – like the teenage years, in which the brain is particularly dynamic. I spoke about this last Thursday night at the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Sage Hill Event: The Teenage Mind: What Every Parent Needs to Know . Adolescence is also a period of significant vulnerability for the development of mood disorder, substance abuse, and other psychopathology. How can we harness this increased neuroplasticity to achieve lasting clinical change? What are some lifestyle interventions that might actually make a difference? These are all key issues which I think we are making important strides toward addressing, but clearly there is a lot more work to be done. At the very least, the rising tide of evidence for brain plasticity offers promise for the possibility of changing and rewiring the brain.
by Benita Shobe
President & CEO, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation
2011 was an impressive year of progress as NARSAD Grant-funded discoveries spanned brain and behavior disorders – including schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders including OCD and PTSD and autism. Our Scientific Council selects the most promising ideas to fund each year, across research disciplines, institutions and communities. In the sampling of work presented below, you will discover proven next generation therapies, innovative early intervention techniques and promise for improved diagnostic tools, groundbreaking basic research to further our understanding of how the brain functions and can malfunction, and the continued refinement of new technologies to significantly advance our progress.
Please click on our orange neuron logo below and
explore our interactive 2011 Research Highlights page. As always, thank you for joining in our shared commitment to alleviate the suffering caused by mental illness. We will continue to share our progress with you – check for news updates weekly on our web site front page – throughout this New Year that is already proving very productive!
In 2011, the Foundation awarded $1.5 million in NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grants to fund 15 brilliant scientists.
The NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grant is the largest grant awarded by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, and provides up to $100,000 for a one-year study per scientist. Distinguished Investigator Grantees (we like to call them “D.I.’s” for short!) already have a proven record of extraordinary research accomplishments and receive the grant to pursue a novel or innovative research idea.
Meet some of the brilliant 2011 NARSAD Grantees:
Kelsey C. Martin, M.D., Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles: “I am fortunate to have received research support from NARSAD Grants throughout my career, as a Young and Independent Investigator, and now a Distinguished Investigator. At each step, NARSAD Grant-funding has allowed me to explore new directions and ideas in my research. My lab uses basic molecular and cell biological approaches to understand how experience changes the circuitry of the brain and NARSAD Grants have allowed us to more directly consider our studies in the context of human mental illness. While I am convinced that cures to neuropsychiatric disease are most likely to come from a mechanistic understanding of nervous system function, the gap between basic neuroscience and psychiatry can be daunting. Through its support research aimed at understanding mental illness from a breadth of perspectives, The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, with its NARSAD Grants, narrows that gap.”
Ralph E. Hoffman, M.D., Yale University School of Medicine, Yale University: “In spite of advances in drug therapies and other approaches over the past 20 years, I continue to see the terrible devastation of [schizophrenia] time and time again ─ where talented, intelligent young people become hugely challenged with the burden of bizarre and disruptive experiences, with lost capacity in terms of school, work and social function. Although there have been incremental advances in understanding various aspects of this illness, there has been no breakout finding that has lead to a more definitive treatment. I would like to try to do something about that. Second, I believe that figuring out the basis of schizophrenia will also provide deep insights into how the brain works normally ─ how large populations of unintelligent neurons on their own connect and interact to generate ideas, language, emotions and social knowledge that make us human.”
“This NARSAD Grant has enabled me to launch a new research direction examining brain mechanisms causing schizophrenia. Our approach is based on a combined artificial neural network simulation / human narrative memory study by our group suggesting a new illness model of schizophrenia. The model predicts that aberrant neuroplasticity during consolidation of autobiographical memories intermingles and corrupts these memories thereby producing delusions and derailed narratives (Hoffman et al. Biological Psychiatry 2011). The NARSAD Grant will enable us for the first time to test this hypothesis directly in brain using functional MRI. This is a very exciting prospect because the hypothesis provides a detailed roadmap of how schizophrenia might develop during late adolescence and early adulthood, and, if confirmed, would suggest new approaches to treatment.”
Michael S. Fanselow, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles: “It has always been amazing to me how a single experience can radically and permanently change brain function. When these changes have such an adverse effect on people, as happens in PTSD, it becomes urgent for us to understand what happens and what needs to be done to restore normal adaptive function. Obviously the NARSAD Grant is a tremendous honor. The project will allow us to pursue and develop new avenues of research we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Specifically, it should recognize that fear normally serves a critical function and is a necessary adaptation. But experiences that provoke PTSD lead to nonadaptive function in those normally beneficial circuits. The Foundation is giving us the opportunity to directly compare the ensemble of neural activity that leads to both adaptive and nonadaptive fear and to see what is similar and dissimilar about that neural activity.”
Stephen R. Marder, M.D., University of California, Los Angeles: “The NARSAD Grant will allow me to begin a new area of research. In recent years I have focused on strategies for improving the ability of people with schizophrenia to improve their social interactions. For many of these people, difficulties in interpreting social signals have had serious effects on their ability to succeed at jobs, school, and rehabilitation programs. My research will focus on studying promising medications such as oxytocin which may improve the ability of patients to improve their social skills during a training program.”
Read more about the entire D.I. Class of 2011 HERE.